As part of our International Women’s Day celebrations, Jane Quinn looks at what it means to be a woman photographer when your country is at war.
Driven by news editors’ demands for photographs of western military power and success and the perception that warzones are not suitable for women, the photographing of war has traditionally been a male activity. Although there have been notable female exceptions such as Gerda Taro, Lee Miller, Susan Meiselas, Marie Colvin and Anja Niedringhaus the majority of these photographers, both male and female, are western, reporting on conflict in countries around the globe which they visit, rather than live in. Why are there so few native female photographers and photojournalists?
The priority of both men and women living in areas of conflict is to survive. With women this is often compounded by the need to protect and look after their families. They are in a situation where there is no normal infrastructure: friends disappearing and dying, schools often closed, food difficult to get. Waad Al-Kateab’s film For Sama, captures this total dislocation. A filmmaker, Waad undertook a five-year project cataloguing the impact of the Syrian conflict on her new baby and life with her doctor husband, Hamza, during the destruction of Aleppo. Winner of Best Documentary at the 2020 BAFTAs, four awards at the British Independent Film Awards (BIFA’s) and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature with her co-director Edward Watts, this is an intimate account of Waad, Hamza and Sama’s everyday lives.
Sama is pictured here in September 2016, in the bombarded east of Aleppo with a placard in response to US presidential candidate Gary Johnson’s infamous gaffe ‘What’s Aleppo?’.
Still of Sama from film promotion. Reproduced with the kind permission of Waad-al-Kateab
Not only is the film a moving personal portrait of the effect of conflict, but it explains how difficult it is for women to become successful filmmakers and photojournalists in areas of conflict, and identifies some of the factors are which enable them to do so. Waad and Hamza are activists, determined to make a stand against the destruction by staying in Aleppo and running a hospital there, and they demonstrate a particular kind of resilience based on their political beliefs, compassion and love of their country. Nevertheless, Waad experienced the same issues as other women in the city: the need to get food, keep Sama safe, find a way of surviving sniper fire and aerial bombardment. There are other concerns for native photographers too. Equipment easily gets broken in the violence and can be difficult to replace. There is no training available as schools and colleges are destroyed. They may draw attention to themselves and be targeted if they are discovered recording covering the conflict. Images are difficult to get out of the warzone. These obstacles can often become insurmountable without help inside and outside the country.
One response to the scarcity of women photojournalists can be seen in the work of Sahar Speaks, an organisation begun in 2015 by Ami Ferris-Rotman, a British American journalist working as Reuters senior correspondent in Kabul. She realised there were no female Afghan journalists in international news positions – indeed only one in nine journalists in that country is a woman.
Sahar Speaks’ aim is to train Afghanistan’s aspiring female journalists. They can then explain to the wider world the impact that living in a culturally restrictive society has on women’s lives. Several of the graduates of the course have joined foreign news organisations, including the New York Times and BBC. Huffpost provides an online platform for Sahar Speaks’ photostories, which cover individual accounts of poverty, enforced child marriages and a deep disapproval of women learning skills outside the family setting. With a two-week course in Kabul, and mentoring by female journalists from around the world Sahar Speaks shows how western organisations can intervene through sensitively developed training to ensure the voices of Afghan women are heard.
Yet this is not an area where there is just one emerging model for a future where female photographers from low-income countries can give their perspective. Some, such as the Algerian-born Zohra Bensemra, the Guardian agency photographer of the year in 2017, captured images from Somalia, Iraq and Syria for Reuters following her start covering the Algerian Civil War in the 1990s.
Although Zohra describes feeling the human pain of what she is filming, she is producing photographs for a global audience, deliberately assuming the gender-free identity of ‘photographer’. In a more traditional photojournalistic tradition she takes pictures to show the world what individuals in war zones are facing and is now Chief Photographer for Reuters in West Africa.
In contrast, breaking through photojournalistic conventions, the West Bengali Poulomi Basu allies herself strongly with human rights in her photographs of social restrictions and conflict in the Indian sub-continent. Working with NGOs such as WaterAid, she shows the impact of war on women’s day-to-day lives. For instance, she founded the website Blood Speaks documenting, through beautiful photography, the practice of menstrual exile in Nepal, and contributing to the Nepalese government’s outlawing of the practice in 2017. Her skill as a visual activist, combined with the use of the internet as a platform for worldwide reach, bypassed the lack of interest in established news outlets to form a separate power base for the issue. Yet she has also been published in a wide range of western media and won many awards and grants.
Not all of these female photographers see themselves working for media agencies to bring their perspective to international affairs. Some do, and the number of media platforms, the internet, television, newspapers, which carry their work is a determining factor in their visibility to a western audience, and to the wider recognition of the issues many of them cover. For others, it is more important to tell visual stories about their homelands, to lay witness to injustice and work for change. And usually, though not exclusively, to focus on the effects of war rather than its mechanics, the impact of conflict and social exclusion on women and families.
The role of indigenous female journalists in warzones is emerging, fragile and disparate. But by combining their talent with timely and sensitive interventions from western media, powerful individuals and organisations such as the Magnum Foundation, they will become more resilient to the harsh environment of war and social restrictions. The exhausted stereotypes of western-imposed images of conflict must give way to photographs and accounts from the people who live in the country, potentially reaching a wider audience through the internet. Female photographers will be central to this re-balancing of the imagery of conflict, but it is a long, difficult journey ahead.
Jane Quinn is a writer, curator and director. Her History of Art PhD from Birkbeck, University of London, explores the imagery of conflict.
FAST FORWARD: WOMEN IN PHOTOGRAPHY.
CALL FOR PAPERS
WOMEN, PHOTOGRAPHY, CONFLICT
Conference 4, Tbilisi, Georgia, 19-20 – September 2020
Announcement from Tbilisi Photography & Multimedia Museum (TPMM)
as the central event of the 11th Edition of Tbilisi Photo Festival.
Deadline for the abstract submission: March 31, midnight GMT.